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Chicago Public Library Wed Apr 16 2014
I felt myself walk into a strange wilderness that cool night in early April when I stepped through a side entrance to the Harold Washington Library and joined a group of older patrons in an elevator. They were dressed "to the nines", as they might say. I had received an email informing me that cocktail attire was encouraged, if not required. I had on a new brown speckled sweater, formal slacks and a blazer I'd borrowed from my friend Julian nearly nine months prior for an event in Los Angeles. Rather than iron or dry-clean them, I put them on and did squats in my Boystown apartment kitchen before packing them in an overnight bag and heading downtown for dinner.
I smoothed the wrinkled slacks and smiled to the others in my grand gold elevator car. My car keys were jammed uncomfortably in my front pocket and my wallet, hulking with Belly cards and Subway gift certificates (but little cash), stuck out from my inner jacket pocket. I sucked at my teeth and rolled my tongue up and across my gums, trying to find the source of some odd smell I knew was coming from me. I hungered for a drink, some cologne to wash away my twentysomething strangeness. I smiled graciously again as a woman with a boa caught my eye wandering up the floor.
"What floor?" she asked.
"Nine," I said. We were going to the same place. Night In the Stacks was the only event in the library that night.
The Winter Garden was glowing, all cool sea-blues and garden lights. Check-in was effortless. The coat check, too. The ride up behind me, I arrived timidly onto the main floor. Intelligentsia, to my right, served some combination of espresso and herbal tea called a Glider. While I waited for my date to arrive I flitted and flirted about with a wallflower's grace, smiling calmly at nothing but absorbing as much as I could, to write down later.
The event, hosted by the Chicago Public Library Foundation Junior Board, a group of 50 young professionals, had the feel of a elaborate prom for grown-ups. The inevitability that comes with an open bar discouraged cloistering, but the layout kindly provided wicker chairs in the far, dark corners.
Not make-out spots, exactly, these dark oases were coupled with bookcases and encouraged a reflective glance back at the sort of reading I remember doing when I was a decade younger. Enrapt in a book, nothing, not even a raging party could tear me away from, say, Captains Courageous or The World According to Garp. I liked the idea of these corners but felt obligated to wander toward the event's bright white center: a bank of couches and transparent tables for drinks and hors d'oeuvres. Lit-themed sushi, sliders and parfait were served out of giant books.
The theme was, at first, lost on me. I saw the bookcases and heard the clever nicknames for appetizers and drinks -- Krapp's Last Sushi or Pride and Preju-Juice -- and the presence of a coffee bar drove home my belief that Chicago is severely lacking a late night coffee spot. I had, however, expected something more.
Then I saw Eloise.
At first my assumption was that this little girl in a blonde and pigtail-ed wig was unstable. It was only 8pm, after all, but someone can throw back a few goblets of Swann's Punch in an hour. I, myself, was feeling the effects of two Gliders and a whiskey neat - the only legitimate option, I realized, looking down on my speckled sweater and my father's long-ago-polished shoes.
But she wasn't someone I could ignore or write off as a sloppy drunk. She pirouetted with a specific joy and delicacy, flung herself on the blinding white couches with convincing exhaustion, skipped and sang and flipped her curls with such vivacity...it was Eloise. Huck Finn was nearby, I realized, in overalls and a straw hat. He was barefoot. My date, Cathy, joined me at the front of the transformed ballroom and we watched the two of them do some charming bastard version of the Cha-Cha slide. I saw the accents of both their worlds in each clap and step-touch.
"I'll check my coat," Cathy said, and walked away quietly. I couldn't look away.
Juliet shook me into reality. I looked down at Miriam Reuter, a good friend and talented actress in the city. "Excuse me, sir," she asked. "Have you seen my Romeo?"
"No," I said. I caught myself. "Miriam?"
"Juliet," she said. She continued without missing a beat: "I just met him at a ball. He was wearing a mask? About ye tall..." She lifted her hand just above my head and stood on her toes to achieve maximal accuracy. "Have you seen him?"
"I haven't," I said. She harrumphed.
"Well, he was supposed to meet me on that balcony," she said. She gestured to a balcony and I was amazed that it was there - that balcony. I fell in quickly. Conspiratorially, I leaned in close.
"Do you think it's a good idea?" I said. "To try and find him?"
"What's the worst that could happen?" Juliet replied. She smiled giddily, then her brow furrowed with a dozen mixed emotions and she scurried away. She wore a summer dress and clutched a copy of Romeo and Juliet in her hands. I hoped then she wouldn't make it to the ending.
Cathy returned and we worked our way to the open bar. Red wine, red wine, red wine, and we stumbled our way across an expanse of characters that rivaled Disney World.
Mr. Hyde flirted consistently with both she and I, and when we told him we'd met at an Argo tea he referred to me, for the remainder of the evening, as "that tea-bag". This kind of fun was riveting, as there was no shortage of commitment from the performers. Frederico Garcia Lorca read me a "new" poem he was working on, about "the matador". It was a metaphor, he told me, for Franco. "James?" I asked.
"Francisco," he replied. Apparently I was one of the few to recognize him. White carnation in his pocket, I was dismayed to learn he was to be assassinated. Unlike Juliet, he spoke in all places in time. He told me how it was to work with Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali, to love them as well - "as intimates," he said, carefully. I wondered if he'd auditioned with a more playful or explicit series of events.
Frankenstein offered a lesson in nonverbal communication. The performer was courageously committed, grunting even on the dance floor, risking shame and discomfort from the people who didn't appreciate his reverse-McCain, arms-up dance moves. I counted three. Personally amazed by his trapezius muscles, I applauded everything he pulled out of the Frankenstein narrative. In retrospect I should have come dressed as the blind man who, in Shelley's novella, truly loves him.
I asked one literary icon how their night was going and they said, with a game twinkle, that "a drink sure would be nice."
It was a night of this type of dreaming. Holly Golightly leaned suavely beside Jane Austen's Emma and a tortured Bronte character. Katniss Everdeen snacked on a raspberry parfait and reminded me to have a good time and not "think of all the people dying for your entertainment." Only Patrick Bateman seemed unnecessary, populated as the night was by smiling men in suits passing out business cards.
I struggled with a buzzed intensity to determine characters Cathy and I could impersonate; we had been mistaken, at one point, for performers. Only after a magician knocked a glass of wine to the floor did we realize Revolutionary Road would have been the perfect unlikely story.
"How do I go about looking pregnant?" Cathy asked.
"Tell me when you figure it out," I said. "I can practice mussing my hair, looking at the floor and threatening you with emotional violence..."
"I lost it," she said.
"That's too bad," I said.
"No, the baby," Cathy said. "Let's pretend I've already lost it."
After a certain hour the performers were let loose and they got down and dirty on the dance floor. Most of them stayed in character. I imagine it might have been exhausting to go through the rigmarole of re-introductions, establishing as they had with such detail and commitment "who they were" over the course of the night's five hour runtime. Curtains up, curtains down.
As the final slow dance came to a close, we stepped off the dance floor. Like leaving a good prom, no one spoke of after-hours drinks or parties, exhausted as we were from such intense carousing with reality and fiction. My party had even had a brush with the law, sneaking through an unmarked door to find "the stacks" themselves, only to stumble upon a blaring alarm system. Cold feet ensued. That adventure would have to wait for regular weekday library hours.
As we waited for the blue line to come (it was shut down through Damen, so it never did), a deep silent happiness settled on our bench in the underground.
Some ground had been broken; "A Night in the Stacks" had magic and potential and strangeness. So much strangeness within the stacks. An alarming and gorgeous strangeness and freedom.
I'd seen Holly Golightly's eyes as we left. She took down her wayfarer sunglasses to listen more carefully to someone on her way out. We smiled at one another. I learned her name. A beautiful woman staggered up to me on heels afterwards as I grabbed a tote bag.
"You're friends with Holly Golightly?" she said.
"I am, yeah," I replied confidently.
"Give her my number," she said. She told me her name, asked me to -- please -- make it happen. I wondered if she thought I was a character in a novel. I looked down at my outfit and saw how it could be mistaken for something more. I told her I'd do my best.
"Thank you," she said. "Thank you." And the big gold elevator doors shut.